The officer was about to remonstrate, but Ronald, seizing the moment when a wave had just swept back, rushed in, sprang head foremost into the great wall of approaching water, and in half a minute later appeared some distance out. A few vigorous strokes took him to the side of the drowning boy, whom he seized by his shoulders; then he looked towards the shore. The young officer, unable to obtain a hearing from the excited Fingoes, was using his cane vigorously on their shoulders, and presently succeeded in getting them to form a line, holding each other by the hands. He took his place at their head, and then waved his hand to Ronald as a sign that he was ready.
Good swimmer as he was, the latter could not have kept much longer afloat in such a sea; and was obliged to continue to swim from shore to prevent himself from being cast up by each wave which swept under him like a racehorse, covering him and his now insensible burden. The moment he saw that the line was formed he pulled the boy to him and grasped him tightly; then he laid himself broadside to the sea, and the next roller swept him along with resistless force on to the beach. He was rolled over and over like a straw, and just as he felt that the impetus had abated, and he was again beginning to move seaward, an arm seized him.
For a few seconds the strain was tremendous, and he thought he would be torn from the friendly grasp; then the pressure of the water diminished and he felt himself dragged along, and a few seconds later was beyond the reach of the water. He was soon up on his feet, feeling bruised, shaken, and giddy; the natives, who had yelled with joy as they dragged him from the water, now burst into wailings as they saw that the boy was, as they thought, dead.
"Carry him straight up to the fires," Ronald said as soon as he recovered his shaken faculties.
The order was at once obeyed. As soon as he was laid down, Ronald seized the blanket from one of the men's shoulders, and set the natives to rub the boy's limbs and body vigorously; then he rolled him in two or three other blankets, and telling the men to keep on rubbing the feet, began to carry out the established method for restoring respiration, by drawing the boy's arms above his head, and then bringing them down and pressing them against his ribs. In a few minutes there was a faint sigh, a little later on an attempt to cough, and then the boy got rid of a quantity of sea water.
"He will do now," Ronald said. "Keep on rubbing him, and he will be all right in a quarter of an hour." As Ronald rose to his feet a woman threw herself down on her knees beside him, and seizing his hand pressed it to her forehead, pouring out a torrent of words wholly beyond his comprehension, for although he had by this time acquired some slight acquaintance with the language, he was unable to follow it when spoken so volubly. He had no doubt whatever that the woman was the boy's mother, and that she was thanking him for having preserved his life.
"This is their head man," the officer interpreted; "he is the boy's father, and says that his life is now yours, and that he is ready to give it at any time. This is a very gallant business, sergeant, and I wish I had the pluck to have done it myself. I shall, of course, send in a report about your conduct. Now come to my tent. I can let you have a shirt and pair of trousers while yours are being dried."
"Thank you, sir; they will dry of themselves in a very few minutes. I feel cooler and more comfortable than I have done for a long time; ten minutes under this blazing sun will dry them thoroughly."
It was another two days before the sea subsided sufficiently for the surf-boats to bring the ammunition to shore, and during that time the chief's wife came several times up to the barracks, each time bringing a fowl as a present to Ronald.
"What does that woman mean, sergeant?" one of the men asked on the occasion of her second visit. "Has she fallen in love with you? She takes a practical way of showing her affection. I shouldn't mind if two or three of them were to fall in love with me on the same terms."
"No, her son got into the water yesterday, and I picked him out, and this is her way of showing her gratitude."
"I wonder where she got the fowls from," the trooper said. "I haven't seen one for sale in the town anywhere."
"She stole them, of course," another trooper put in, "or at least if she didn't steal them herself she got some of the others to do it for her. The natives are all thieves, man, woman, and child; they are regularly trained to it. Sometimes fathers will lay wagers with each other as to the cleverness of their children; each one backs his boy to steal something out of the other's hut first, and in spite of the sharp watch you may be sure they keep up, it is very seldom the youngsters fail in carrying off something unobserved. It's a disgrace in a native's eyes to be caught thieving; but there's no disgrace whatever, rather the contrary, in the act itself. There's only one thing that they are as clever at as thieving, and that is lying. The calmness with which a native will tell a good circumstantial lie is enough to take one's breath away."
Ronald knew enough of the natives to feel that it was probable enough that the fowls were stolen; but his sense of morality was not sufficiently keen for him to hurt the woman's feelings by rejecting her offerings.
"The Kaffirs have proved themselves such an ungrateful set of scoundrels," he argued to himself, "that it is refreshing to see an exception for once."
As soon as the ammunition was on shore it was loaded into three waggons, and on the following morning the party started. It was slow work, after the rapid pace at which Ronald and his men had come down from King Williamstown, and the halting-places were the same as those at which the troop had encamped on its march up the country five months before.
The greatest caution was observed in their passage through the great Addoo Bush, for although this was so far from the main stronghold of the natives, it was known that there were numbers of Kaffirs hiding there, and several mail carriers had been murdered and waggons attacked. The party, however, were too strong to be molested, and passed through without adventure. The same vigilance was observed when crossing over the sandy flats, and when they passed through Assegai Bush. Once through this, the road was clear to Grahamstown. Here they halted for a day, and then started on the road leading through Peddie to King Williamstown. After a march of fifteen miles they halted at the edge of a wide-spreading bush. They had heard at Grahamstown that a large body of Kaffirs were reported to be lying there, and as it was late in the afternoon when they approached it, Ronald advised the young officer in command of the Fingoes to camp outside and pass through it by daylight.
"There is no making a rush," he said; "we must move slowly on account of the waggons, and there will be no evading the Kaffirs. I do not think there is much chance of their attacking such a strong party as we are; but if we are attacked, we can beat them off a great deal better in the daylight than at night; in the darkness we lose all the advantage of our better weapons. Besides, these fellows can see a great deal better than we can in the dark."
They started as soon as it was light. The Fingoes, who were a hundred strong, were to skirmish along the road ahead and in the wood on each flank of the waggons, round which the detachment of Rifles were to keep in a close body, the Fingo women and children walking just ahead of the bullocks. Scarcely a word was spoken after they entered the forest. The waggons creaked and groaned, and the sound of the sharp cracks of the drivers' whips alone broke the silence. The Rifles rode with their arms in readiness for instant use, while the Fingoes flitted in and out among the trees like dark shadows. Their blankets and karosses had been handed to the women to carry, and they had oiled their bodies until they shone again, a step always taken by the natives when engaged in expeditions in the bush, with the view of giving more suppleness to the limbs, and also of enabling them to glide through the thorny thickets without being severely scratched.
They had got about half-way through the bush without anything being seen of the lurking enemy, when a sudden outburst of firing, mingled with yells and shouts, was heard about a quarter of a mile ahead.
"The scoundrels are attacking a convoy coming down," Ronald exclaimed.
"Shall we push on to their aid, sergeant?" the young officer, who was riding next to Ronald, asked.
"I cannot leave the waggons," Ronald said; "but if you would take your men on, sir, we will be up as soon as we can."
The officer shouted to his Fingoes, and at a run the natives dashed forward to the scene of the conflict, while Ronald urged the drivers, and his men pricked the bullocks with their swords until they broke into a lumbering trot.
In a few minutes they arrived on the scene of action. A number of waggons were standing in the road, and round them a fight was going on between the Fingoes and greatly superior numbers of Kaffirs. Ronald gave the word, and his men charged down into the middle of the fight. The Kaffirs did not await their onslaught, but glided away among the trees, the Fingoes following in hot pursuit until recalled by their officer, who feared that their foes might turn upon them when beyond the reach of the rifles of the troopers.
Ronald saw at once as he rode up that although the Fingoes had arrived in time to save the waggons, they had come too late to be of service to the majority of the defenders. Some half-dozen men, gathered in a body, were still on their feet, but a score of others lay dead or desperately wounded by the side of the waggons. As soon as the Fingoes returned and reported the Kaffirs in full flight, Ronald and the troops dismounted to see what aid they could render. He went up to the group of white men, most of whom were wounded.
"This is a bad job," one of them said; "but we thought that as there were about thirty of us, the Kaffirs wouldn't venture to attack us. We were all on the alert, but they sprang so suddenly out of the bushes that half of us were speared before we had time to draw a trigger.
"What had we better do, sir – go on or go back?" This question was addressed to the young officer.
"I should think that now you have got so far you had better go on," he said. "The Kaffirs are not likely to return for some little time. I will give you half my Fingoes to escort you on through the wood. Don't you think that will be the best plan, sergeant?"
"I think so, sir. I will let you have half my men to go back with them. The rest of us had better stay here until they return. But, first of all, we will see to these poor fellows. They may not be all dead."
Most of them, however, were found to be so, the Kaffirs having sprung upon them and cut their throats as soon as they had fallen. Two of them who had fallen near the group which had maintained the resistance were, however, found to be still living, and these were lifted into the waggons. Just as the party were going to move on towards the coast, a groan was heard among the bushes by the side of the road. Ronald and two of the troopers at once proceeded to the spot.
"Good Heavens!" the former exclaimed, as he leaned over the man who was lying there, "it is Mr. Armstrong."
He was lifted up and carried into the road. An assegai had passed through both legs, and another had transfixed his body near the right shoulder. The point projected some inches through the back, the shaft having broken off as he fell. Ronald seized the stump of the spear, and with the greatest difficulty drew it out from the wound.
"Cut his things off," he said to the troopers, "and tear up something and lightly bandage the wound. I am afraid it is a fatal one." Then he hurried off to the men.
"Were there not some women in the waggons?" he asked.
"Yes, there were three of them," the man said; "a girl and two women. The women were the wives of two of the men who have been killed. The girl was the daughter of another. I suppose the natives must have carried them off, for I see no signs of them."
Ronald uttered an exclamation of horror; he knew the terrible fate of women who fell into the hands of the Kaffirs. He returned to the officer.
"What is it, sergeant?" he asked. "Any fresh misfortune?"
"A young lady, sir, daughter of that poor fellow we have just picked up, and two other women, have been carried off by the natives."
"Good Heavens!" the young man said, "this is dreadful; they had a thousand times better have been shot with their friends. What's to be done, sergeant?"
"I don't know," Ronald said, "I can't think yet. At any rate, instead of waiting till the party with these waggons come back, I will push straight on out of the wood, and will then send the rest of my men back at full gallop to meet you, then you can all come on together. I think you said you would take command of the party going back with the waggons."
The two trains were at once set in motion. Ronald's party met with no further interruption until they were clear of the bush. As soon as he was well away from it, he sent back the Rifles to join the other party, and return with them through the forest. He went on for half a mile further, then halted the waggons and dismounted.
Mr. Armstrong had been placed in one of the waggons going up the country, as they were nearer to a town that way than to Port Elizabeth; besides, Ronald knew that if he recovered consciousness, he would for many reasons prefer being up the country. Ronald walked up and down, restless and excited, meditating what step he had best take, for he was determined that in some way or other he would attempt to rescue Mary Armstrong from the hands of the natives. Presently the head man of the Fingoes came up to him, and said, in a mixture of English and his own tongue:
"My white friend is troubled; can Kreta help him?"
"I am troubled, terribly troubled, Kreta. One of the white ladies who has been carried off by the Kaffirs is a friend of mine. I must get her out of their hands."
Kreta looked grave.
"Hard thing that, sir. If go into bush get chopped to pieces."
"I must risk that," Ronald said; "I am going to try and save her, whether it costs me my life or not."
"Kreta will go with his white friend," the chief said; "white man no good by himself."
"Would you, Kreta?" Ronald asked, eagerly. "But no, I have no right to take you into such danger as that. You have a wife and child; I have no one to depend upon me."
"Kreta would not have a child if it had not been for his white friend," Kreta said; "if he goes, Kreta will go with him, and will take some of his men."
"You are a good fellow, Kreta," Ronald said, shaking the chief heartily by the hand. "Now, what's the best way of setting about it?"
The Fingo thought for some little time, and then asked:
"Is the white woman young and pretty?"
"Yes," Ronald replied, rather surprised at the question.
"Then I think she's safe for a little while. If she old and ugly they torture her and kill her quick; if she pretty and young, most likely they send her as present to their big chief; perhaps Macomo, or Sandilli, or Kreli, or one of the other great chiefs, whichever tribe they belong to. Can't do nothing to-day; might crawl into the wood; but if find her how can get her out? That's not possible. The best thing will be this: I will send two of my young men into the bush to try and find out what they do with her, and where they are going to take her. Then at night we try to cut them off as they go across the country. If we no meet them we go straight to Amatolas to find out the kraal to which they take her, and then see how to get her off."
"How many men will you take, Kreta?"
"Five men," the chief said, holding up one hand; "five enough to creep and crawl. No use to try force; too many Kaffirs. Five men might do; five hundred no good."
"I think you are right, chief. It must be done by craft if at all."
"Then I will send off my two young men at once," the chief said. "They go a long way round, and enter bush on the other side; then creep through the bush and hear Kaffir talk. If Kaffir sees them they think they their own people; but mustn't talk; if they do, Kaffirs notice difference of tongue. One, two words no noticed, but if talk much find out directly."
"Then there's nothing for me to do to-night," Ronald said.
The chief shook his head. "No good till quite dark."
"In that case I will go on with the convoy as far as Bushman's River, where we halt to-night."
"Very well," the chief said. "We go on with you there, and then come back here and meet the young men, who will tell us what they have found out."
The chief went away, and Ronald saw him speaking to some of his men. Then two young fellows of about twenty years old laid aside their blankets, put them and their guns into one of the waggons, and then, after five minutes' conversation with their chief, who was evidently giving them minute instructions, went off at a slinging trot across the country.
In less than an hour the party that was escorting the settlers' waggons through the bush, and the mounted men who had gone to meet them, returned together, having seen no sign of the enemy. The waggons were set in motion, and the march continued. Ronald Mervyn rode up to the officer of the native levy.
"I am going, sir, to make what may seem a most extraordinary request, and indeed it is one that is, I think, out of your power to grant; but, if you give your approval, it will to some extent lessen my responsibility."
"What is it, sergeant?" the young officer asked, in some surprise.
"I want when we arrive at the halting-place to hand over the command of my detachment to the corporal, and for you to let me go away on my own affairs. I want you also to allow your head man, Kreta, and five of his men, leave of absence."
The young officer was astonished. "Of course I am in command of the convoy, and so have authority over you so long as you are with me; but as you received orders direct from your own officers to take your detachment down to the coast, and return with the waggons, I am sure that I have no power to grant you leave to go away."
"No, sir, that's just what I thought; but at the same time, if you report that, although you were unable to grant me leave, you approved of my absence, it will make it much easier for me. Not that it makes any difference, sir, because I admit frankly that I should go in any case. It is probable that I may be reduced to the ranks; but I don't think that, under the circumstances, they will punish me any more severely than that."
"But what are the circumstances, sergeant? I can scarcely imagine any circumstance that could make me approve of your intention to leave your command on a march like this."
"I was just going to tell you them, sir, but I may say that I do not think it at all probable that there will be any further attack on the convoy. There is no more large bush to pass between this and Williamstown, and so far as we have heard, no attempt has been made further on the road to stop convoys. That poor fellow who is lying wounded in the waggon is a Mr. Armstrong. He was an officer in the service when he was a young man, and fought, he told me, at Waterloo. His place is near the spot where I was quartered for two months just before the outbreak, and he showed me great kindness, and treated me as a friend. Well, sir, one of the three women who were, as you heard, carried off in the waggons, was Mr. Armstrong's daughter. Now, sir, you know what her fate will be in the hands of those savages: dishonour, torture, and death. I am going to save her if I can. I don't know whether I shall succeed; most likely I shall not. My life is of no great consequence to me, and has so far been a failure; but I want to try and rescue her whether it costs me my life or not. Kreta has offered to accompany me with five of his men. Alone, I should certainly fail, but with his aid there is a chance of my succeeding."
"By Jove, you are a brave fellow, sergeant," the young officer said, "and I honour you for the determination you have formed," and waiving military etiquette, he shook Ronald warmly by the hand. "Assuredly I will, so far as is in my power, give you leave to go, and will take good care that in case you fail, your conduct in thus risking your life shall be appreciated. How do you mean to set about it?"
Ronald gave him a sketch of the plan that had been determined upon by himself and Kreta.
"Well, I think you have a chance at any rate," the officer said, when he concluded. "Of course the risk of detection in the midst of the Kaffirs will be tremendous, but still there seems just a chance of your escape. In any case no one can possibly disapprove of your endeavour to save this young lady from the awful fate that will certainly be hers unless you can rescue her. Poor girl! Even though I don't know her, it makes my blood run cold to think of an English lady in the hands of those savages. If I were not in command of the convoy, I would gladly go with you and take my chance."